My rollercoaster feeding journey
Another post by yours truly- which I wrote when bub was 9 months old.
I knew breastfeeding would be tough and I knew it would be clunky for the first few weeks, but I wasn’t expecting just how hard it actually was, and for how long the difficulties would persist. When I was pregnant, I had signed up to online courses that went through modules on breastfeeding, breast milk, how to position baby to latch, how to express antenatally, the common troubleshooting difficulties and so on. I was getting prepared as I didn’t want to be under any illusions that breastfeeding was going to be a walk in the park.
I tried hand expressing antenatally once a day from about 37 weeks onwards. Boy that felt weird! I had the little syringes at the ready to catch any tiny drops. The videos in the online course reassured me that lots of women who might not hand express any colostrum antenatally, will go on to have good milk supplies for their bub. “Ok, no worries” I told myself- no drops, no sign of colostrum- that’s ok.
The day finally came when our baby girl arrived in the world. Wow- she’s finally here after waiting for what seemed like an eternity at 41+4 weeks. Her tiny warm and slippery body was put straight on my chest when she came into the world. How surreal. She was home. I didn’t immediately feel the overwhelming gush of love I thought I would. Perhaps I was still processing how quick the birth was and was still in shock that we had a baby earth side. We cuddled together and I tried getting her to latch, but she slipped all over the place and after a while of not being able to latch, we took a break. A midwife said to me quietly “as soon as you get to the ward ask for a breast pump so you can keep stimulating the breasts… but I didn’t tell you that”. Huh? Like it was a forbidden thing to do. I followed her advice, and asked for a pump, though my goodness trying to find the right flange size took many midwives and days to find. “No no, it’s sucking too much of the nipple up, you need a bigger size” said one. “Oh gosh that flange is way too big, let’s get you a smaller one” said another. Everyone had a different opinion for the flanges and wow don’t get me started on their opinions for the latching and positioning.
No one told me just how many opinions there would be and how with each shift change, you’d need to learn a whole new way to hold your baby to try and get her to latch according to the next midwife. Constantly I was told “no don’t hold her that way”; “here let me do it for you”. I was pumping every couple of hours, and still no drops. The poor little bub tried her best to latch but it didn’t happen- she just fell asleep with the shallowest latch or pulled off in frustration that there was still no milk. “Nope no tongue tie, no issues in her mouth, she just needs to learn how to get on” they told me. My nipples were ridiculously sore- red, cracked, bruised. Each time the pump would turn on, I’d wince at the pain of them being vacuumed into the machine. Each time bub would try to latch, my toes would curl and I’d clench my muscles. “A good latch shouldn’t hurt- though it might feel uncomfortable to begin with”. Many times I told myself that it wasn’t painful- it was just uncomfortable. Looking back it wasn’t just uncomfortable- it was excruciating and definitely not a good latch.
By the second night, baby E was blooming hungry! By that stage I had expressed maybe a few drops of colostrum and they were treated like absolute rare rubies, carefully transferred into bub’s mouth. After more hours of no sleep, at 1am, the midwife on duty kindly asked me if I’d be ok to offer her some formula to help fill her tiny tummy. “Oh hell no” I thought. No one I knew had given their baby formula in hospital and I sure as heck didn’t want to be the first one. (By the way, since sharing this with friends and family, I’ve learnt that the majority of bubs have at least one formula feed in the hospital). By 3am, baby E was very hangry. I relented and called the buzzer. The midwife then wheeled off my screaming baby. I burst into tears. I wanted to be with my baby, I didn’t realise she would take my baby from me and go and feed her. When they returned she was settled and slept for a couple of hours. After the sun rose that day, I was keen to get the heck out of hospital, and be at home with my husband and baby- as a new family. We were discharged with a feeding plan in place. By that stage I was on a rest and express plan due to the nipple trauma (which means don’t do any breastfeeds, only express via hand or pump, to help heal the nipple damage), and bub was to have formula and any drops of colostrum I could give. I watched the breast pump praying every time that some drops would squeeze out. Day 4 and it felt like my boobs were ready to explode, but again little to nothing came out with the pump. Bub was dehydrated and was passing urates in her wees. She hadn’t done a poo since day 2 and this was day 5 now. Back to the hospital we went to get her checked to see what was happening. We waited for the paediatrician for hours. Turns out, she was healthy- just dehydrated, and we were told to increase formula amounts yet again. It felt like a race- any milk I was expressing, bub would also increase the amount she drank and the distance between the amount I could pump vs how much she’d need just kept growing. I kept trying her on the breast when I wasn’t on a “rest and express”. Again the toe curling pain came back.
Day 6, and I noticed red splotches over both of my breasts, and felt painful lumps inside. It hurt to hold my baby against my chest or in any way. It hurt to sit from the stitches and bruising of the episiotomy, my nipples were red raw- my body hurt everywhere. Mastitis had reared its ugly head for the first time. I scrambled to try and find a doctor’s appointment on a Saturday, whilst juggling visitors coming over, and the never ending pumping. Later that night when friends were around, I started feeling awful- feverish, flu-like symptoms and pain (of course there was pain- I was getting used to this!). I was on the phone to the midwives trying to make a plan of whether to make our way to the hospital. In hindsight this would have been the time to ask our friends to leave- I just wanted to curl up with my husband and baby. Over the next few days and weeks, the mastitis hung around, and I needed 3 rounds of antibiotics, daily physio/ultrasound therapy to clear it. I pumped in the strangest of positions to try and drain my breasts. I dunked my boobs in bowls of warm water, I iced them, I put heat packs on them. I massaged my boobs in standing, lying, sitting, any way to relieve the pain and blocked ducts. It seemed like I did everything, but hold my baby and soak her in. It broke my heart.
Days and weeks went by and the pumping never ended. Bub would sit in her bouncer as I would pump for literally hours every day (and over night). I felt so guilty when she would cry in her bouncer, whilst I was attached to the pump, unable to hold my baby close against my chest to soothe her for there were big plastic things in the way. At times I resorted to picking her up and holding her body against my collar bones- above the pump pieces and cords. I worried that with all the hours she would sit in the bouncer she would get a flat head, or miss out on moving her body- hours where I could have been holding my baby close- instead I watched her staring at me from the bouncer, whilst I was hooked up to the pump trying to put on a brave face for her.
My beautiful Aunty who lived in a different state to me, was a very experienced lactation consultant, and I began seeing her through video calls and phone calls almost daily, to help me and bub find a way to breast feed. Under her expert guidance, I went on a high dosage of medication to try and bring in my milk, and the levels slowly but surely increased. Bub still struggled to breastfeed. She did in fact have both a lip tie and a posterior tongue tie, which only my Aunty LC picked up based off some pictures and my descriptions, along with another long list of oral-motor difficulties that made feeding hard for her. No LCs we had seen in person yet had told me this. My days now were a constant cycle of breastfeed with a nipple shield, pump, bottle feed expressed milk, burp, tiny bit of play, rock to sleep (often it would take 30-60 mins with her screaming), a 30 min catnap whilst I washed bottle and pump parts and repeat.
All day, everyday.
At night, she would wake every couple of hours, and again I would pump at each wake, whilst my husband bottle fed her. I was beyond exhausted. I'd have a mini celebration when my volumes that I pumped increased- "I'm getting there" I thought, only to have her volumes she needed to drink increase. The goal posts just kept moving and it felt soul crushing. I searched the internet for success stories of those with milk supply who got a full supply in the end, and found almost none.
I would eat lactation cookies, smoothies, specific herbs, and foods that were recommended like I hadn’t eaten in days, around the clock. I was still on the medication (which had a fun side effect of weight gain). More weeks went by, and I weaned myself slowly off the medication as my milk supply became enough at 8 weeks. I did it. I finally had enough milk supply for my girl.
I bloody got there.
If only that was the only problem though. Bub still couldn’t drain my breasts, and still needed top up bottles after breast feeding, which meant more pumping. About once a week or more sometimes, I would get blocked ducts, and once again getting mastitis. The emotional and physical pain of not being able to hold my baby close broke my heart. Still pumping around 2-4 hours every single day, I would increase the pumping time to try and drain the ducts. Again, tears of pain, tears of sadness and tears of anger. Around the 3 month mark, she started to become even more fussy at the boob, and eventually refused it at most feeds. I mean fair call- breastfeeding was hard work for her, and the bottle was so much easier. Being close to someone stressed and desperate to make you feed didn’t help either. I tried getting her back to the boob- I would bounce on a ball, tape a nipple shield to myself, sing, attempt a latch whilst dripping in drops expressed milk from a bottle or a feeding tube into her mouth. I needed 3 more hands to make it work. Eventually after 2 weeks of these feeds every day and night, bub was determined to only feed from the bottle. On a cognitive level I knew that it wasn’t my baby rejecting me, but wow it sure felt like it. My beautiful LC suggested to take some pictures of me breastfeeding my baby to try and find some closure. I had to let my dream of breastfeeding my baby go.
People would ask curiously “has she come back to the boob?”. I tried to keep a brave face with others, but would cry behind closed doors of the guilt and sadness I felt. I felt guilty feeding her a bottle, and would feel angry when I watched her take a bottle with someone else as I pumped. Man I hated pumping. When I hooked myself up, and pressed the ‘on’ button, such an intense feeling would appear- like rage. Such an intense sensory overload that took a couple of minutes for my body to get used to. My husband soon learnt to give me a few minutes before interacting with me, to avoid being snapped at as the rage would take over me. I would set myself up with snacks or a meal whilst I would pump as I would be starving, but as soon as the pump would switch on, my feelings of starvation would disappear completely and the desire to eat or drink would go out the window. And also- side note, no one tells you about the length/size your nipples go to after pumping. Trying to put a bra/top on after pumping is just something else.
I felt like I couldn’t go out anywhere outside of home for any longer than 2 hours (including the travel time), as I’d need to be home in time to pump. I was sad that I didn’t have the freedom to feed her when she wanted and wherever we were. Instead if we were out I had to make sure I had pumped earlier and had breastmilk in the bag, but then of course we couldn’t stay out longer than one feed. I had to leave friends and family’s places sooner than I would have liked to return home to pumping. Occasionally I would have to bring the pump, and all the bits and pieces with me (which felt like way too much work); and then hide away in a room by myself for 30 minutes whilst I was locked to the pump, feeling so exposed, vulnerable and alone.
"But at least she's still getting breastmilk" people would say. No one acknowledged the cost it was robbing from me though. Perhaps they didn't know what it was like, I mean it doesn't sound too bad right- pump a few times a day- maybe put on some Netflix to make the time pass. In reality nothing was further from it. But this "precious liquid gold breastmilk" was put before anything else including my mental health, my relationship with my baby and my relationship with my husband.
I was still bloody exhausted. Months had gone past now, and I still pumped for hours every day, and once or twice during the night. I slowly weaned myself off pumping over night to try and get some more rest, but bub would still wake multiple times. I couldn’t sleep during the day as she would only sleep a maximum of 30 minutes at a time, and that was after needing to be settled for around 45 minutes every nap. She was likely taking in lots of air with the bottle feeding due to her high palate and so was perhaps uncomfortable and in pain. Trying to see any positive- my legs were getting damn strong after doing lunges and squats to try and calm her. I was tired, emotional, I fought more with my husband, especially when he would use the wrong breast milk, or warmed up more than what bub would drink, resulting in needing to throw some away, after I worked so hard to produce it. Pumping was getting to me, I knew I needed to wean off some sessions. I would be resentful when I’d have to rip the pump off my vacuumed nipples, when she would wake from a 20 minute nap screaming, to go and settle her back to sleep; and then return back to finish the rest of the pumping session. This is at the 7 month mark- day in and day out still pumping. I slowly started to pump less.
Due to trying to space out the pump sessions during the day to make sure I got as much milk as I could, and not have it too distant otherwise the blocked ducts and pain would return- I pumped every few hours throughout the day starting first thing in the morning (so bub could have milk as soon as it was expressed to try retain all its nutrients) and last thing at night. The down side from that was that even though my baby went to bed sometime before 8, i had to stay up till at least 10pm to fit in the last pump. So even though i craved going to sleep early (as i knew id be up between 2-5 times a night settling her), i had to stay awake longer. It wasn't until bub was almost 9 months that I managed to wean off the night pump without blocked milk ducts. Finally sweet sleep for just a few consecutive hours!
Bub was also intolerant of milk and soy, which meant weaning off pumping meant more formula feeds of an allergy friendly formula that she often refused due to the taste and then was hungry. Again, I felt guilty and selfish, as it felt like I was wanting to wean off the pumping for me and because I was tired of it, not because bub didn’t want or need the breastmilk. And when she would refuse the formula, I felt awful for continuing to get her to drink it.
It’s taken just over 2 months to wean off pumping, and now, just over 9 months, I’m weaning off the last pump each day. Weirdly, as much as I hate pumping, I don’t want to let it go or stop completely. It’s another loss for me that I wasn’t prepared for. I wonder if I held onto pumping for as long as I did because I was waiting and hoping someone would say “the pain, the hours, the energy- you’ve made up for not breastfeeding”; or “you’ve done enough, you can stop now”.
All up, it’s been around 635 hours of pumping over 9 months. 635 hours. 1,270 pumping sessions of 30 minutes. That’s a full 84.5 working days or almost 17 entire working weeks. Or over 26 days of pumping non stop 24/7. Well fuck, no wonder why I’m tired.
So what have I learnt from it all?
Do I have some type of PTSD from the feeding journey? Maybe
Did I have high expectations of what our feeding journey would be like? Probably
Did the pumping and feeding difficulties contribute to me likely having periods of time where it felt like postnatal depression? Yep
Has this little essay of a blog post been helpful in my healing, putting words to my experiences and feelings? Yeah
If I were my own client, would I have recommended thinking about stopping pumping earlier? Yes
Do I take my own advice? Heck no
Do I think the pumping and feeding difficulties impacted the bond I share with my daughter? Sadly yes
Was all the pumping worth it? Not for the cost of my mental health, and my relationship with my baby or my husband. That cost is far too expensive, and one I wish I realised sooner.
Would I do it again? One small part of me says yes, and one bigger part of me says no.
Do I still grieve the loss of breastfeeding? Absolutely, I’m sure a part of me will always long for what could have been.
Just like I don’t quite want to finish making milk for my baby, I don’t quite know how to finish this post. I know this is only the beginning of my parenting journey, and many more tears of sadness, anger, guilt, joy and delight will be had in the future. Whilst it has been so hard so far, I’m so grateful that I have my baby and my husband and am one of the lucky ones for someone to call me ‘Mum’. I hope that in sharing my journey, someone who is going through something similar can read this, and know that they aren’t the only ones who struggle.
So is this a big story, where at the end I say “I’m stronger now because of it all, and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat”? No. Heck no. I’m not sure if I’m stronger now, but I’ve realised how strong I was and am, even when I was falling apart. My daughter was born 9 months ago, but I was born as a mother 9 months ago too. She has a lifetime ahead of discovering who she is, and I am evolving and I’m working on getting to know myself as a new version known as ‘mum’.